Here’s why 9 Miami men have been on a hunger strike for 21 days
In Miami’s Liberty City, during the wee hours of Monday morning, two women were rushed to the hospital after being injured in a drive-by shooting. As the week progressed, Miami experienced at least five more shootings, including one that was fatal, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
In the midst of all of the violence, nine men have been camped out at NW 62nd St. and NW 12th Ave., across from the notorious “Pork n Beans” housing project. They’ve been there since March 9, conducting a hunger strike to protest the violence raging around them.
The Hunger Nine are part of a Miami-based activist group called the Circle of Brotherhood. They were inspired to lead the strike after a few of the members attended a candlelight vigil for the families of children slain by gun violence in their community. The sheer amount of grieving black mothers is what struck them.
“It’s hard enough to deal with one mother who is grieving the loss of a child,” said Lyle Muhammad, executive director of the Circle of Brotherhood. “At this particular vigil, it turned out to be 40 or 50 wailing mothers. And it really pierced the men in such a way that they were inspired to figure out what more can we do.”
After a two-month preparation period, Operation Hunger Strike was born. The group includes men from all walks of life. Among them is Edward Haynes, the first black person to be hired by the Miami Shores Police Department; Liberty City native Albert Campbell, who was formerly incarcerated for 35 years; Minister Anthony Eugene Durden, a Miami native who battled a 20-year addiction to drugs and alcohol and was once a perpetrator of violence, but recommitted his life to faith; community organizer Bro. Phillip Muhammad Tavernier; rehabilitated ex-offender, Leroy Jones, who has always wanted to be considered a positive force in his community; Anthony Blackman, who released a song on the day the strike started; local comedian George Dana Jackson; and national boxing champion, Melvin El.
Since March 9, all nine men have consumed nothing but water. Medics have been checking in on their tents twice a day. Two men have reported dropping significant weight, but all maintain that they are healthy and their spirits remain high. When asked when they’ll feel like they can end the strike, no one had a direct answer.
“To say that what we’re doing will stop gun violence, it doesn’t really add up,” Campbell said in a phone interview with ThinkProgress, with a slight laugh.
He continued by saying the strike is really an effort “to bring awareness to gun violence, to put it in our people’s faces and to have an internal dialogue with our own people, to let them know that somebody cares about them and that we are concerned about the gun violence, and we’re concerned about grieving mothers, and we’re just doing our part in a process. This is a step in a process to healing our people.”
So far, although their efforts have stirred up attention in Miami, they haven’t garnered the level of notice they were hoping for.
“We only get local attention around here, as if we’re just guys that was up the street, as if we didn’t have anything else to do, and say, ‘hey lets go on a hunger strike,’ and try and get some attention,” said Campbell. “But no, it’s not like that. We have jobs, we have wives, we are putting our bodies on the line, and it seems like we are not getting the attention that is due for the cause that we are championing.”
Since the men have begun, they have been visited by many supporters — college students, law enforcement agents, members of Congress, state representatives, victims, perpetrators, and students and teachers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which was the site of a mass shooting that killed 17 people last year. But that’s not enough, the men say.
“We need attention. This is our reality. And we’re just wondering why we are not having the attention that is due to it. It’s been  days now that we have been sacrificing for this cause. And I don’t know if it’s location, I don’t know if there’s no empathy for the cause. I don’t know,” Campbell said. “Only thing we know is that we need the word to be spread. We’re not asking for money, we’re not blaming the NRA, we’re not blaming the politicians. We’re not blaming anybody. We’re just doing this to start an internal dialogue within our own community.”
Bro. Phillip Muhammad Tavernier, a Miami Gardens resident who is Haitian-American and moved to the city as a child from New York stressed that “this is about black men taking responsibility for their community.” His words — that black men face higher risks of gun homicide and should therefore be more involved in the movement against violence — are punctuated by the painful significance of Tavernier’s Miami Gardens city. The town was home to 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed in 2012.
On Friday, the men entered the third week of the strike, and yet the local newspaper Miami Herald has only reported on their efforts three times, with one write-up being an opinion piece. NPR’s weekend addition only covered the action once.
For the black residents of Liberty City, the limited news coverage is likely unsurprising, as many have long felt that violence in their communities is overlooked or disregarded as par for the course.
Eighty-five percent of all firearm homicides globally occur in the United States and black people are disproportionately affected. They are 10 times more likely than white people to experience gun violence in their lifetime. Black children experience gun violence in school at twice the rate of their white counterparts. And black people are more likely to be victims of police violence.
For Liberty City, this wasn’t always the reality. The city used to be a flourishing community offering promise to its black and black immigrant residents. It was seen as an “ideal community” for black Americans in the 1950s. Over the years, due to the politics of integration, lack of resources, and systemic racial barriers, the community has faced a decline and crime rates have soared.
In broader Miami, homicide rates last year were the lowest since 1967. The city reported 51 in 2018, compared to 59 in 2017. Miami used to rival cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Baltimore with averages well over 300 in the 1980s. These statistics suggest a positive shift for Liberty City, but there seems to be a disconnect between the numbers and the community’s perception.
“Are the numbers accurate?” Gladiest Barnes, who lost two of her seven children to gunfire, told the Miami Herald earlier this year. “It doesn’t seem like it. And it really doesn’t help. I can’t be excited or really happy about it because of my child. If a parent were in my shoes, everything is still painful.”
Next month, the Liberty City community will mark the difficult anniversary of the high-profile shooting death of two high school students. Last April, in broad daylight, 17-year-old Kimson Greenwere and 18-year-old Ricky Dixon were caught in the crossfire of a drive-by one afternoon. The community spiraled into despair and rallied in their honor, activism that brought about modest action from authorities and the powers that be. After their murders, at least 140 security cameras were installed around the city. There’s also been an increase in police activity, a welcome change for some in the community who have been frustrated with the violence.
But these incremental steps are not good enough for the Hunger Nine. Muhammad repeated his uncertainty about when they’ll be ready to end the strike, telling ThinkProgress that it was up to the Hunger Nine to decide. But as police sirens wailed on in the background toward the end of the call — something one of the Hunger Nine participants noted — it seemed clear that it’s really up to the community.